- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Detroit Pistons, searching for any semblance of an identity during a season in which they haven’t often played like defending champions, very much looked the part at MCI Center last night when they had to.

Down by 19 points in the first half, the Pistons used a last-second jumper by Chauncey Billups to earn a 107-105 victory over the Washington Wizards at sold-out (20,173) MCI Center. Billups finished with a season-high 32 points for the Pistons, who blitzed the Wizards 65-46 in the second half.

In a game when the Wizards energized their crowd more than they have at any previous point this season, Billups sank a 14-footer with seven-tenths of a second left to decide the outcome. He had 21 of his points in the second half.

The loss, despite 34 points from Gilbert Arenas and 30 from Larry Hughes, ended the Wizards’ strong bid to defeat a defending champion. The last time the Wizards did so was Nov.8, 2002, when they toppled the Los Angles Lakers at MCI Center.

The Wizards (15-12) blew their 19-point first-half lead when the Pistons (15-12) went on a 20-2 run in the third quarter, pulling within five points at the end of the period.

“It was a hard to swallow,” Arenas said. “It’s hard to lose when you fight as hard as we did.”

If the Wizards had trouble swallowing, it was because Billups rammed a magnificent second half down their collective throats. He finished the night making six of eight from behind the 3-point line.

And when the game was being decided in the fourth quarter, Billups was perfect, connecting on all four of his shots. The biggest were back-to-back 3s over overmatched Steve Blake, on the court after Arenas picked up his fifth foul with 6:17 to play.

“If I was there he probably would have hit them, too, because they were fastbreaks in the open floor,” Arenas said. “He picked the right time to make big shots.”

The second, with 3:40 to play, put the Pistons ahead 101-96. But Washington’s Antawn Jamison (16 points, three steals) capped a 9-4 Washington run with a layup to tie it 105-105.

Just when it appeared as if the Wizards might take the Pistons into overtime, Billups rose up and swished the game-winner.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan wanted very much to win this game and use it as a springboard to a successful stretch over the next two weeks. After they return from a New Year’s Eve game in Boston, the Wizards will play six of their next seven at home.

“We thought we could start momentum here, get a lot of confidence in beating them at home and then tear through the home stretch with a lot of confidence and a lot of juice, and we still can,” Jordan said.

But only if they play the way they did in the first half, when they scored 59 points and led by 19 late in the second quarter. If they allow teams to score 65 points in the second half as the Pistons did, trouble is not far off.

Rasheed Wallace added 23 points and nine rebounds for the Pistons, who have won three in a row.

There was some grumbling in the Wizards’ locker room about officiating, and perhaps it had some merit. Five Wizards had at least four fouls, while Ben Wallace (eight points, 14 rebounds) was the only Piston with four.

And when Arenas picked up his fifth foul against Antonio McDyess, replays on the big screen appeared to show Arenas backing away from the big man rather than fouling him.

“Oh, y’all saw that, too — I thought it was just me,” said Arenas, looking as if he wanted to expound on a call he disagreed with. “But that’s the way it is in the NBA. Sometimes you have to go against the grain.”

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